Common Tread

Harleys in Hill Country: How to slow one's roll

May 27, 2015

I glanced at my watch as I shouted out my order for another round of whiskey and Lone Star beers over a screaming steel guitar: 1:17 a.m.

It was Sunday night, and after three jam-packed days representing RevZilla at moto-related events, like the Handbuilt Show and MotoGP in Austin, fellow Zillan Brett Walling and I were blowing off a little steam, Texas style. This meant hitting up the Continental Club for some live music, indulging in a few rounds of cheap whiskey, and dancing with every woman willing to brave her toes to our motorcycle boots.

Good, old-time country music at the Continental Club in Austin had us dancing until they kicked us out. Photo by Brett Walling.

Distracted by cowboy boots paired with sundresses, it was well past last call by the time we stumbled into the night and headed home. Admirably, we were showered, packed and on the road by 10 a.m., guzzling Gatorade and watching Austin disappear in the rearview mirror. Before long, we pulled into Caliente Harley Davidson in San Antonio, swapping our rental car for a 2015 Street Glide and Road King.

Brett made a beeline for the Street Glide, punching buttons on the dash and desperately scanning the radio dial.

“No more of this Matchbox Twenty shit,” Brett proclaimed, clearly displeased with my musical selections thus far. “We’re in Texas and all I want to hear is mariachi bands and country music.”

With a loose route in mind, mariachi music on the radio, and 48 hours of freedom in front of us, the strip malls of San Antonio morphed into rolling green hills as we made our way out of town. I have to admit that while I have ridden across Texas numerous times, I had never ridden Hill Country prior to this trip. I was quickly learning why people gushed about riding in Texas. These roads were amazing.

Relaxing in the apex of one of the middle sister's many curves. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Brett and I quickly learned that the Harleys preferred to meander through corners, as opposed to attacking them. Brett, at peace with his mariachi music, was a bit more patient than I was. I am so used to using a motorcycle as a tool for furious acceleration as a way to outrun the stress of a long day that it never occurred to me that I could instead back down the pace and let all of life's deadlines and distractions just pass me by.

“Just relax and slow down,” Brett shouted over the radio.

Brett putting some time in on the Road King. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

I eased my twisted right wrist and soon my Road King fell right into pace alongside Brett’s Street Glide, as we turned left onto the first of the Twisted Sisters. The Twisted Sisters, if you are not familiar, are three roads (RR335, RR336, and RR337) that can be traversed via a 130-mile loop full of long sweepers and tight switchbacks that put the “Twisted” in the name. I found serenity with a slower pace just as one of North America's most famous stretches of highway snaked its way to the horizon in front of me, tempting me like the serpent it was.

The winding curves and elevation changes found on the Twisted Sisters of Texas Hill Country attract motorcyclists from around the country. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Knowing Texas State Troopers' penchant for passing out speeding tickets, I was almost relieved we were on the Harleys as we followed the sister’s curvy lines. Floorboards sparked across the blacktop as the bikes wallowed hard through the corners, reminding us of their limitations, keeping our speed down, the troopers’ radar guns at bay, and leaving my newfound serenity intact.

Feeling the effects of the previous night's whiskey, women, and dancing, we decided to make it an early night, finding a hotel overlooking the North Llano River in Junction, Texas. We feasted like kings on gas station sandwiches and a bag of chips as we sat behind our hotel, watching as the sun set over the water.

Shapow! Brett says he doesn't like being in front of the camera, yet he has no problem hamming it up with me. Photo by Brett Walling.

The next morning, we headed down to the river for an impromptu photo shoot, where I wrestled the Street Glide’s keys from Brett and took off down the road before he could protest. Stylistically, these bikes appeal to two different riders. The Road King, with its classic lines, is geared to a more mature rider while the Street Glide has a sinister look that appeals to the rebel within. It didn’t take long behind the bars of the Street Glide to realize that while the bikes shared similar drivetrains, luggage setups, and overall weight, there were marked differences between them.

The Road King’s bars had a 10-inch rise that made for awkward handling and left me with a throbbing ache in my shoulders, while the Street Glide’s bars sat naturally and comfortably in front of me. That, coupled with the low profile tires, gave the Street Glide an advantage in handling. However, I preferred the wind protection provided by the King’s windshield to the Glide’s batwing fairing. I found the tech package, housed in said fairing, to be counterintuitive, and soon I was riding sans mariachi music to avoid crashing. Having to explain to the big boys upstairs that I totaled a $20,000 Harley while searching the radio for the latest Mariachi Los Toros hit was not a conversation I felt like having.

While there are a lot of similarities between the two Harleys, their marked styling differences set them apart. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The throttle response and cruise control on both bikes were spot-on. I wish my Mazda’s cruise control worked this well. Harley’s Twin Cam 103CI High Output Big Twin is the heartbeat of both bikes and provided enough torque to allow me to lock into fifth gear and just forget about shifting. This was welcome, considering that when I did have to shift I found the gearbox to be clunky and vague. The gearing itself was spot-on and for my style of riding I found sixth gear to be completely unnecessary under 80 mph. Considering the roads we were on, we rarely saw speeds north of 65 mph.

Weaving our way back down RR335, the westernmost sister, we pulled into the dusty town of Camp Wood around noon. Stopping at the only gas station in town, we found ourselves chatting with Rodney and Marlene, a husband and wife duo touring around on a BMW R 1200 RT and Triumph Thruxton, respectively. Just 24 hours earlier, I would have found myself lusting after Marlene's Thruxton, but I was getting used to my relaxed pace and all of the scenery I normally miss while staring intently through the next corner.

We had originally planned on aiming for Kerrville to bed down for the night, but they insisted we push through to Fredericksburg, about 20 miles further down Highway 16. With the promise of a small town Main Street, clean hotels, and a brewery with strong microbrews, we found no reason to argue.

With multiple vistas and countless amazing views along the road, the hardest part of this trip was trying not to stop every five minutes for a photo op. Photo by Brett Walling.

We spent the rest of the afternoon cruising lazily through the hills of Texas. Stops were made for urgent matters such as sitting in the shade of a tree, wading into a stream to escape the heat of the Texas sun, or eating ice cream at the local Dairy Queen.

The Medina River, running south of the town which bears the same name, looks like something from a Mark Twain novel. Photo by Brett Walling.

We pulled into Fredericksburg as the sun was setting. We took a slow spin down Main Street before settling on the Sunday House Inn with its blinking vacancy light luring us in. The muggy Texas evening was perfectly offset with a few rounds of cold beer and some fresh grilled catfish at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company.

When ordering a growler of beer to take back to the hotel pool with us, we misunderstood the waitress when she asked, “18 or 32?” Assuming she meant ounces, we opted for “32,” while commenting to each other that those were really small growlers. As it turns out, she meant dollars and we ended up with enough beer to host a college frat party. Even growlers are bigger in Texas.

Up with the sun and facing another beautiful Texas spring day, we were on the road by 7:30 a.m., trying to cram in as much riding as possible before we had to drop off the bikes and catch a flight back to reality. We headed north to check out the famed Texas wildflowers on the Willow City Loop. Maybe I am just not that into flowers, but this stretch held as much excitement for me as watching Kenny G. break the Guinness World Record for holding one note on a saxophone for 45 minutes. However, the loop was packed with onlookers, so what do I know? Perhaps it's an acquired taste, like drinking beer.

The wildflowers were in full bloom. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Brett and I completed the loop and began a slow southern descent into San Antonio. The green rolling hills morphed back into crowded strip malls with fast food joints advertising meals in minutes, laundry mats with 60-minute turnaround times, and five-minute car washes.

Watching this transformation I was reminded of the old Alabama song, “I’m in a hurry (and I don’t know why).” Randy Owen sang that he was “rushing, rushing ‘til life’s no fun.” That was back in 1992, before iPhones, Google, and email accountability. Can you imagine how he feels now?

The open roads of Texas are perfect for the Street Glide's insatiable thirst for tarmac. Photo by Brett Walling.

With this trip we had nowhere to go, no destination, no agenda, and yet I still couldn’t wait to get there. The Street Glide and Road King, while not my typical ride, helped remind me that sometimes it’s OK to slow down and smell the wildflowers. Despite the handlebars (which I could simply swap out for some beach bars), the Road King ended up being my favorite of the two bikes. It inspired me to ease up and lock the cruise control in at 55 mph. It turns out there is so much more to see when one slows his roll.

Sometimes it is important to remind ourselves that all we really need to do is live and die, and I am in no hurry to do the latter, especially with a world full of motorcycles to be ridden and cute girls in cowboy boots to dance with.